Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Patriots 2008 Season Preview

Given all I've got going on (remember this?), this will be an abbreviated version of the usual block-buster season preview -- "...And there was great rejoicing!"

Here are some of the questions that illustrate how the Patriots need to improve, how they did improve, how they got worse, and how all that will affect their 2008 season.

What lessons can you learn from an 18-1 campaign?

Lesson #1 You should always get better as the season progresses

Long the hallmark of Bill Belichick teams, BB seemed to forget that mantra in the drive for a perfect season and as many offensive records as he could get. If the 2007 Patriots had spent more games developing younger defensive players or improving their defensive schemes, it might have cost them a game or two during the season. But it also might have prepared them to close the deal on the last drive against the Giants.

Lesson #2 You must always make adjustments -- 18 consecutive wins or not

No Brady-to-Moss jump ball can replace the recognition that double-teamed outside receivers means Brady-to-Welker and the running game are better options. Welker tied the Super Bowl record with 11 receptions. But IMO, he should have had 20 catches and had his tongue hanging out at the end of the game.

But the Patriots continued to call long pass plays against a defense designed to stop that specific tactic. It was just as arrogant as when the Rams refused to run the ball against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. The coaches and/or players should have adjusted to what the defense was giving them. And that failure cost them a 19-0 season.

3. Hiring coaches from outside your organization is healthy

For the first time in years, the Patriots hired a coach who wasn't a Belichick protege. Dom Capers has never coached with BB, and has had two stints as a head man himself. I don't really understand why he came to NE to coach the secondary, but I believe it is healthy to reach outside your organization to fill some coaching spots.

In the past, too many New England coaches learned everything they knew from BB. It worked out okay, but no Super Bowl victories since seconds-in-command, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, left. So it's probably time to try something new.

Anyone important show up since last year?

1. LaMont Jordan will provide depth at running back and a legitimate backup for Kevin Faulk. Faulk has been the man on third-down for years, but when forced to play too much, he can cough up the ball. So if the Patriots are throwing on every down, to catch up or to build a lead, they can insert Jordan to give Faulk a rest.

2. Linebackers Victor Hobson (from the Jets) and Jerod Mayo & Shawn Crable (both rookies) will have to shore up an aging unit that lost two starters from last year (Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin). In the pre-season, Hobson struggled a bit, but Crable looked good for a third-rounder and Mayo looked every bit the first-round pick, starting most games next to Tedy Bruschi.

And I think that more linebacker youth, a healthy Richard Seymour, and moving Adalius Thomas to outside linebacker will lead to vastly improved play from the line-backing corps. Overall, I expect better play from this unit.

3. There are too many new cornerbacks to mention, but in the pre-season, it appeared as though the first-teamers had closer overall coverage than they did on anyone last season. It's been a while since the team got game-changing plays from this unit. With so many new faces (including the secondary coach), that could change in a hurry.

Anyone important leave since last year?

1. The Pats spent their $9 million/year to re-sign Randy Moss. The Philadelphia Eagles spent their $9 million/year to take Asante Samuel away from the Patriots. Moss is clearly one of the best wide receivers in the league; Samuel might be in the top 25 cornerbacks in the league. I think the Patriots made the right choice, but they would still be a better defense with Samuel.

2. Sad to see Donte Stallworth leave; but I don't think the offense will suffer much without him. They don't have the same level of threat opposite Randy Moss, but they still have plenty of talent at wide receiver.

3. Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau -- thanks for the memories; sorry things didn't work out last year. Colvin showed flashes of brilliance over the years but was too oft-injured to really shine. And Seau definitely helped; but a 38 year-old body only goes so far these days.

How will the season go?

Here is my breakdown of the Patriots schedule. As you would expect (especially after *this* pre-season), all bets are off if the Patriots don't start at least one player named "Brady." But here is how I expect the campaign to unfold.

The Patriots will begin the season with a win over the Chiefs. Not only was KC a bad team last year, their head coach is 2-4 on opening day in his career. From there, they notch another W against the rival Jets. Brett Favre will still be learning the offense and is bound to make a mistake or two. NY will be more dangerous later in the season, but isn't much threat in week 2. Sort of the same thing against Miami in week 3 -- just too much talent differential to be a competitive game.

After the Bye Week, the Patriots should handle the 49ers in San Fran. Then comes a dangerous game against the Chargers, who play two easy "home" games (one in Oakland) before taking on the Pats, and who should be motivated from last year's loss in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots, OTOH, will be on their second consecutive west coast trip -- though they could stay out there for the week in-between. Sounds like their first loss of the season.

I hate to predict two losses in a row, but the Patriots *always* lose to the Broncos, and even though Denver has fallen on hard times, I don't see how that changes. Chalk up loss #2. After that, the St. Louis offense is good, and the Patriots will be on a short week (after playing Monday night). However, the Rams still shouldn't be any trouble -- they'll be in the middle of a killer schedule, playing their third straight 2007 playoff team (two of those games on the road). Patriots at Colts will be a barn-burner, but Indy will be on a short week (they play on Monday night the week before), and I have an inkling that Indy's time might be slipping away, so I'll go with the Pats.

That brings us to the Bills at home. Last year's average score between these two: Patriots 47, Bills 8.5. I don't think Buffalo has made up the 38.5-point differential -- and the Bills schedule before this game is San Diego and two division games (Dolphins and Jets). Pencil in another division win. The Pats then play the Jets, which would be more dangerous except that it's a home game for New England. Probably another win.

Then comes a danger game. The Dolphins will undoubtedly be better, the Pats haven't done well in Miami over the years, and it's a holiday week -- which can lead to distractions. Also, the Patriots play perennial contender Pittsburgh the next week, so this could be a trap game. Put them down for a surprise loss, unless Chad Pennington is injured for the Dolphins, then it'll be a cakewalk for the Pats.

As mentioned, the Steelers come to town after Turkey Day, and the Patriots are 7-1 the week after Thanksgiving under Belichick. I expect that trend will continue, and that the Steelers will continue their slow decline in the post-Cowher era. So even though Pittsburgh has ten days to prepare, that probably adds up to another win for the local 11.

The Pats finish up the season with three games against the very weak NFC West and one against their very meek division opponent Bills. The 12/7 road tilt against the Seahawks scares me, because it'll be the second straight week that their opponent has ten days to prepare, and the Seattle crowd will be rockin' the stadium. Feels like a loss to me. After that, the Raiders have too much dissension and should fold easily to the Pats. The only way the Cardinals win is if their playoff life is on the line *and* the Patriots have nothing to play for, which I don't think will be the case. And the Bills... well, I *still* don't think they've made up the 38.5-point differential from 2007.

So barring a late-season "rest period" for their starters or an injury to #12, the Patriots should finish the season 12-4, which will win them the division and put them in the running for a playoff bye.

And even though this would be four fewer wins than last year, I don't associate that change with the Patriots being worse than last year or to the rest of the league catching up to them. I really think Belichick will care less about winning every game at the cost of developing his young talent. The Giants won the Super Bowl last year with three rookie starters; whereas the 2007 Patriots had none. If the Pats use the regular season well, they could have two or three rookie starters for a potential playoff run (Mayo, Crable, and perhaps Terrence Wheatley). I truly believe the Patriots learned the most important lesson of all in 2008: It is better to lose a game or two with developing rookies than play the veterans all year and run out of gas in February.

Should be fun to watch how it all plays out.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Sure, the Pats have the easiest schedule, based on last year's records. But the rest of their division has it almost as easy. The big difference is that the rest of the AFC East has to play the Patriots -- the Patriots don't."

(Amazing) Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tom Brady is an astonishing 40-2 on artificial turf in his career. Extra credit to anyone who can name both losses without researching it!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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